Up and down the country there are much-loved buildings and engineering structures at the heart of their communities, many owned by local authorities, sitting empty due to lack of funding, the need to find new 21st century uses or to the cost of refurbishment. We have seen too many of these swept away over the past decades; towns and cities whose hearts have been stabbed by the loss of a valued, and often historic, community building, whether it be an educational institute, a swimming baths, a library, an art gallery, a public garden, a museum or a pier.
‘Making it Happen’ at the RIBA aims to raise the profile of community activists who have worked tirelessly and imaginatively to save a key part of their community, sometimes on a large scale and against all the odds, as with the case of Hastings Pier, opened with a banquet for 600 people in April 1862, and which in recent years suffered a series of calamities including storm damage in the 1990′s, ongoing deterioration through lack of investment, and a major fire in 2010.
Before the fire, the campaign to save and give the pier a new life had started with the foundation of the Hastings Pier & White Rock Trust, and a community campaign to renovate, reopen and revitalise the pier as a community asset, aiding regeneration of the seafront and fighting apparent lack of interest by the local council.
The focused community action achieved success – Hastings Borough Council purchased the pier from its private owners, a Heritage Lottery Grant of £8.75 million was obtained towards the £14 million refurbishment designed by architects dRMM which went on to win the Stirling Prize in 2017, and the new pier, retaining its historic structure, opened in April 2016.
Sadly since then, the pier’s future has been uncertain after the Trust went into administration in 2017 and the pier was sold to a local businessman who plans to reopen it this spring.
The RIBA’s exhibition looks at the community success of Hastings Pier and three other projects of vastly different scales: the Coniston Institute by Grizedale Arts + Hayatsu Architects, Old Manor Park Library in London by APPARATA and the comparatively modest Lookout in Scotland by Processcraft. Linked to the exhibition are talks and events and visitors are invited to leave comments on projects they would wish to achieve. Many relate to empty and boarded-up community buildings, sports facilities, swimming baths, libraries and art centres, others to security and safety, one to make the Glasgow School of Art fireproof and one for local authorities to stop cutting down 100 year old trees….
The exhibition, while well designed, doesn’t fully bring out the pain, the energy, the activism, the drama, the fights that communities have engaged in to save their buildings and, while it does mention some other projects such as the Lido in Grange-over-Sands, it could say a lot more about the challenges up and down the country, the latest being the much-loved Winter Gardens and People’s Place in Glasgow Green in Glasgow which suddenly had to close at the end of 2018, with the destruction of several of the fine botanical trees, for safety reasons, and an estimated multi-million point bill for repairs to the Winter Gardens, opened for the benefit of the people in the east end of Glasgow in 1898. Glasgow has a history of community projects from the time of ASSIST, which emerged from Strathclyde University in the 1970′s, placing people and community engagement at the heart of projects, transforming the urban regeneration of Glasgow slums from mass relocation and demolition and rebuilding with tower blocks (many of which have since themselves been demolished), to one of retaining and working with communities, and refurbishing and adapting traditional tenements to provide housing which was more human and kept the heart of the old communities, with a recent example being the Govanhill Baths in the south side of Glasgow.
When I last visited the Winter Gardens on a dull, dark, damp February in 2011, it had been recently refurbished and appeared a much-loved space. Let’s hope that everyone will pull together to find a way of bringing the buildings back into use.